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In housing-hungry Arlington, officials study whether to allow more duplexes, triplexes

A residential complex is built in Arlington, where housing prices in the area have increased with the announcement of Amazon coming to Crystal City.
A residential complex is built in Arlington, where housing prices in the area have increased with the announcement of Amazon coming to Crystal City. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

One of the tenets of Arlington County zoning for the past several decades has been to cluster multifamily housing, retail and office space along major streets and separate the single-family houses from those clusters.

The approach allows growth along mass-transit corridors and preserves the suburban-style streets that drew many homeowners to Arlington in the first place.

Now, the rapidly urbanizing county is beginning a discussion that could result in a change to that agreement. While current zoning rules bar or restrict duplexes and triplexes from many Arlington residential neighborhoods, a new study focused on the “missing middle” will consider whether allowing more than one residence per lot could help solve the shortage of housing affordable to the middle-class workforce.

The housing study is not an attempt to rezone or eliminate single-family neighborhoods, county housing coordinator Richard Tucker told the Arlington County Board last week.

Rather, he said, the effort is the start of a community discussion to both define what “missing middle” housing is and determine where, whether and how more of it could fit into this expensive suburb.

But some residents believe upzoning is a fait accompli, said Sandy Newton, president of the Arlington Civic Federation, which is primarily made up of homeowners associations from around the county.

“People get wind of this and they panic,” she said. “The impact for some of the neighborhoods could be a little much.”

In letters with County Board Chair Christian Dorsey (D) recently, Newton sought assurances that no efforts to change single-family zoning will be made without significant communication with homeowners.

“Increasing density is a challenging issue, and widespread public acceptance will not be obtained easily,” she warned. “Trust issues are getting tenuous as I see it, and although there [is] tons of information on the County website, it is a maze that does not always result in transparency.”

Dorsey responded that the federation is welcome to be part of the community discussion.

“Let me be clear — the Board’s direction to the County Manager has not included anything constituting a Countywide up-zoning or blanket change to the zoning ordinance at this time,” Dorsey wrote.

“In short, there is no current proposal on the table to create large zoning changes which would allow duplexes, etc. in single-family zones,” his letter concluded. “Eventual decisions will be, as they always are, benefited and informed by robust community engagement.”

The study is expected to run for 12 to 18 months, including a public discussion that would probably begin in late spring.

The possibility of rezoning some areas comes amid new efforts to create more affordable housing across the region, as Amazon prepares to open a massive headquarters in Arlington, and workers in Washington and its suburbs increasingly struggle to find housing within their price range. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

In Arlington, the average single-family home is assessed at $908,000, according to county data for 2019, while townhouses average $651,000. The average condo assessment is $407,000. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in 2018 was about $2,500.

Arlington board member Erik Gutshall (D), one of the leaders of the “missing middle” effort, noted that Arlington “was the birthplace of garden-style apartments” after World War II, and said there are other types of housing that the county should help pioneer: cohousing, often defined as private homes clustered around a shared space; housing for seniors who can live semi-independently; residences for families with children with physical, mental or emotional disabilities; and housing forms that may not yet be invented or well-known.

“We are fully committed to all the things we have been doing” for families on the lower end of the income scale, said Gutshall, who owns and operates a home renovation business. “If we don’t take care of the middle income, the middle income puts pressure on the lower income. If we don’t solve for everyone, we don’t solve for anyone.”

Some of the separation between single-family housing and multifamily housing has already been altered. Earlier this year, the county changed its regulations allowing accessory dwelling units, also known as “granny flats,” in single-family areas. Attached townhouses, duplexes and small apartment buildings do exist in some residential neighborhoods in Arlington.

But in many others, they are prohibited, and advocates say changing that restriction would broaden the range of incomes that could afford to live in those neighborhoods.

Arlington devotes about 5 percent of its $1.4 billion general fund budget to helping to create housing mostly for low-income residents. Much of that money goes to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a revolving fund of repayable low-interest loans made to mostly nonprofit developers who build or renovate apartments for people who make significantly less than the median household income of $117,000.

That fund was just boosted by $1.65 million as a result of the County Board’s decision to allow the existing Crystal Houses apartment complex in Crystal City to add 819 new market-rate apartments just down the block from the site of Amazon’s new headquarters. Developer Roseland Residential will also transfer to the county a portion of its property that has been approved for a seven-story structure that would have at least 81 units of affordable housing.

In the adjacent city of Alexandria, the City Council this month agreed to loan $8 million to its affordable housing nonprofit, which hopes to buy a 326-unit apartment, the Avana Alexandria, and eventually re-price some of the units for lower-income residents. There is also room on the site for possible future construction.

It will be the first use of the new market-based investment in affordable housing from the JBG Smith Social Impact Fund, said Mayor Justin Wilson (D), and the first use of the Virginia Housing Development Authority’s affordable housing money dedicated to the region as part of the Amazon incentive package.

The sale is expected to close in January, and JBG Smith would manage the building.

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